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The Story of Crown Point Iron

Pehr (Peter) Kalm, the Swedish scientist, traveling in America in 1749, went to Canada from the English colonies by way of Lake Champlain.  There he stopped at the French frontier post, Fort St. Frederic, built on the Pointe de la Couronne, later called “Crown Point” by the English.  It was here he observed black sand on the lake shore, the grains of which were attracted by his magnet and which he recognized to be iron.  He could not then ascertain the origin of this sand, as he states in his journal; “For it was not known here whether there were iron ores in the neighborhood or not.  But I am rather inclined to believe that they may be found in these parts, as they are common in different parts of Canada, and as this sand is found on the shores of almost all the lakes and rivers in Canada.”

It is not known when or how iron deposits were first discovered in the Adirondack region, but the ore at the Cheever Bed, a short distance north of Port Henry, was being worked as early as 1766 for in that year Major Philip Skene’s boats were known to have made many trips from his settlement, Skenesboro (now Whitehall) to fetch ore for his forges at that place.  In 1771 Skene received from Governor Dunmore letters patent for lands which included this deposit.  Benedict Arnold was in command at the Crown Point fort in 1775, and in June of that year he noted in his regimental book that he had sent a boat with Skene’s Negroes to dig ore from the Cheever.  It was made into iron and used in fitting out vessels which later were engaged in the first naval battle in the War for Independence.

Early pioneers in the Adirondack region believed, and found, that iron existed widely distributed in these mountains.  Looking back at that somewhat legendary epoch the story of iron in this region holds much of  romance.   The iron industry forms not only a major phase of local history throughout the nineteenth century, but it is also a chapter of no mean importance in the history of this country’s material growth.  Due credit should be given to its place in the industrial expansion of that period.  The part Crown Point filled in the picture is well worthy of commemoration.

An iron industry could not have been developed in those times with iron alone, — other resources also were necessary.  Here in this region are to be found close together all materials essential for making iron.  Besides the ore there was timber, seemingly an inexhaustible supply of it, with which to make the great quantities of charcoal needed  to fire the forges and furnaces.  There were numerous streams to furnish water for  washing crushed ore in the separating process and were to swing the trip-hammers and to operate other machinery.  Here, too, in some favorably endowed localities there was limestone needed in furnaces to make a flux with the ore in the smelting process.  Sites for forges were first of all determined by the availability of good water power — timber was everywhere abundant close at hand.  The ore could be, and often was hauled a long distance to the forge or furnance. Furnaces usually  were located with reference to some local supply of limestone as well as ore, water not being needed in great quantity or with head for them.  Carting these two bulky, heavy materials in small wagons over rough roads was a handicap to be reckoned with.

In the beginning the products were made for local use largely, as the market for them was limited to those frontier communities that could be reached by the poor roads or by the waters of Lake Champlain.  Later, when there was a water connection, via the Champlain Canal,  between that lake and the Hudson River was made in 1819-20 it became possible to shop the iron directly by water to the larger markets.  Natural resources being available and means of transport to industrial localities at a distance assured, enterprising men were quick to take advantage.  Winslow Watson, the historian of Essex County, New York, tells that soon “the fires of small forges illuminated sequestered spots in all most every section of the county.”  This work, he points out, “exerted a beneficent local influence. They stimulated the industry of remote districts; they created a market for all the products of husbandry; by a demand for wood and coal, they imparted a value to unprofitable forests, and thus enhanced the price of lands, and promoted the cultivation of the earth.  Little hamlets clustered around these sites, and some exhibited the impress of civilization by their varied arts, their schools, and religious movements.”

A water only transportation system limited a greater marketing opportunity when winter temperatures closed down barge traffic for up to six months.  After the Civil War another transportation opportunity became available by the north/south expansion of rail routes, especially after 1870s  along the western shores of Lake Champlain and provided market access year around.   This was the era of America’s great Industrial Age and the vast Adirondack resources, including iron ore, were in demand stimulating the iron industry here.

Sailing Canal Boat

The manufacture of iron products in Essex County appears to have been initiated in 1801 at Willsboro Falls.  The ore used there came mostly from Vermont but some was brought from Canada.  The articles first manufactured were largely anchors.  These varied in weigth from three hundred to fifteen hundred pounds.  They were transported by water to Whitehall, thence carted overland to Fort Edward on the Hudson, where they were again shipped on boats to Troy.  Mill cranks, grist mill machinery and, later, steamboat irons also were made.

In several instances the discovery of iron ore in this region was made under interesting circumstances, as at Crown Point and at the famous Arnold Hill bed in town of Peru, which was discovered in 1806 by a man who, in traveling over this tract saw a piece of the clear blue iron ore which had been uncovered beneath the roots of a pine tree which had been blown over.  He took it along with him to Jay and smelted it in a blacksmith shop, making a small bar of iron of excellent quality.”

The Elba Iron Works were established on the headwaters of the Ausable River about 1809. Owing to the roughness of the country, the distance of the works from market, and inaccessibility by road, this enterprise was abandoned in 1815.  Numerous other forges were being erected at this time in the region that was accessible from the Lake, and after the opening of the Champlain Canal their activity was greatly increased.

The discovery of iron ore in Crown Point was first made in 1818 at what was later known as the Saxe, or Saxe and Floyd bed.  Two years later it was opened, and in 1823 this ore was used in a forge established at a water power site on a stream nearby.  According to Watson, quantities of it were taken to a furnace owned and operated by Jacob Saxe near the mouth of the Salmon River in Clinton Country and there worked.

The first ore used in this Crown Point forge was from the Cheever bed in the town of Moriah, and later, after the discovery of the Penfield bed in Crown Point, ore was used from that source.  The Hammond bed in Crown Point was discovered in 1821 by a man who was hunting a bee tree in the wilderness.  He first brough some small specimens of the ore in his pocket, and later, with the help of friends, took out eight or ten hundred pounds of ore.  This they carried over a mile on their backs to a road where a team and wagon could be used to carry it to Ticonderoga.

The Penfield bed was discovered in 1826 by a boy who was hunting partridges.  As he grasped a bush to pull himself up the steep monuntainside the whole mass became detached from the rock, disclosing the shining ore beneath.  He took samples of it to his father who owned the land.  The latter opened the bed and subsequently sold it to Penfield and Taft.  Taft sold out his interst in 1834; the firm was then carried on as Penfield & Harwood, later as Penfield & Hammond, subsequently as John & Thomas Hammond, and finally as the Crown Point Iron Company.  This bed, located on lots 45 and 46 of the Paradox Tract, was about one-half mile from the Hammond bed, which possessed similar qualities.  At the Penfield bed there were six different openings, the beds varying in thickness from five to thiry feet.  The ore was black, containing no Sulphur, and only a slight trace of phosphorus.  This bed was worked until the ore body became exhausted in the early eighteen-eighties.

The North Pit was the third important mine in the Hammondville locality.  It is not known when it first was opened, but probably it was at an early date.  Owning to the character of the ore, which was fine grained and very hard to drill and to break up with sledge hammers, it was difficult and expensive to mine, and it was less accessible than the Penfield & Hammond pits.  For these reasons it was not much worked during the earlier years, but quite a sizable pit existed there by 1873.  Previous to 1876 its opening was on the north side of a hill where the ore out-cropped about one mile distant from the other mines.  The ore was hoisted on an inclined track with a two-horse whim.  About that year a vertical shaft was put down from the top of the hill, tapping the ore body below.  The ore was then hoisted with a steam engine and carried on a gravity tramway down the south face of the hill to a spur of the new railroad.  From that time it was continuously worked until 1893, several years after the Hammond & Penfield beds had been exhausted.  The ore was similar to the ore of the Hammond pit, both in chemical composition and in physical character.

Ore from the Penfield bed was smelted at the Penfield & Harwood Iron Works which were located at Irondale, later called Ironville, about six miles west of Lake Champlain.  Putnam Creek was dammed there to form a pond over a mile and a half long which furnished motive power for the plant.  Here as early as 1828 a forge with two water wheels was erected.  In 1873 (then under the name of the Crown Point Iron Company) four fires were reported in the forge with one wooden helve hammer weighing one thousand eight hundred pounds, and there was this time also a separator in which the ore was prepared for the forge.  Characoal was the fuel used; this was burned in covered kilns about four miles from the works, in the town of Ticonderoga.  Ore from the Penfield bed was used here and was worked into blooms and bars.  The annual output at this time was about five hundred tons.  The product is said to have been used for the fabrication of fine wire and at Pittsburgh and elsewhere for making crucible cast steel.

"Belly" Helve Hammer

“Belly” Helve Hammer

At Crown Point and at other iron works in this region the methods of manufacture were essentially the same.  The ore, after being mined, was drawn to large open kilns, about three hundred tons of it being piled upon twenty-five cords of wood.  Heat caused the stone to loose its hold on the iron.  The ore was then generally put through the water process of separation. It was placed in troughs with grate bottoms, in which it was stamped and screened, then passed into sieves through which water rose from the bottom.  The iron, being heavier, sank through holes in the bottom of the sieve into a trough, while the pulverized rock was raised and carried off by the current of water, often together with a considerable amount of the iron in fine particles.  It was a wasteful process.  At the Penfield establishment in Crown Point and at the Peru Iron Works in Clinton County, magnetic separators were in use from an early time.  The one at Crown Point consisted of a cylinder about two and a half feet in diameter and five feet in length which was studded with a large number of magnetized bars of iron around its surface.  The cylinder revolved on a horizontal axis in a trough into which the ore was shoveled.  The pure iron particles were extracted and adhered to the magnets and so were raised out of the trough as the cylinder revolved and carried to stationary brushes which detached them, to fall into receptacles. These magnets would lose strength after a certain amount of use and had to be recharged.

Had the knowledge of generating and using hydroelectric power been available to industry at that time, doubtless electric separators would have been used at the Penfield forge as the proprietors were enterprising, intelligent men, who were on the first line of industrial advance in their times.  In the year 1831 they had secured an electromagnet from Professor Henry of the Albany Academy at Albany, New York, who later became famous for  his experiments with electricity and as Director of the Smithsonian Institution.  It was probably the first industrial use of electricity anywhere.  This primitive device was worked by a wet battery of “galvanic cell” as it was then called.  It was used here for recharging the bar magnets of the separator, and also, it has been said, for separating iron and steel from brass and copper scrap metal.

After the ore had been separated, or prepared for the smelting, it was taken to the forge.  The one at Crown Point was of the Catalan type of which about twenty-five were in operation in this part of the State during the eighteen-seventies.  When the charcoal fire in the forge was sufficiently hot the “bloomer,” who was a man of high technical skill, began throwing ore over the fire.  This shoveling of ore was repeated at short intervals for three hours, when the iron, which at this stage was called a “loop”was ready to be taken out.  During this operation the molten cinder was drawn off quite often.  The ore, distributed over the charcoal fire, became quickly heated and deoxidized and at the same time highly carbonized.  In this condition it percolated through the charcoal into the bottom of the box.  After the fires had been run about three  hours the loops, weighing about three hundred pounds each, were dug out with long bars and placed on a handcart and wheeled to the hammer.  Each was then put under a heavy trip-hammer and “shingled” into cylindrical shape.  In this form one end was then placed back in the forge to be reheated while the next loop was being made.  As soon as hot, it was taken out and hammered down to four inches in thickness.  The unsound or ragged end was cut off and thrown into the fire to be run again, and one-third of the remainder was cut off to form what was called a “billet” or “bloom.”  The remainder of the loop was then reheated and hammered out into two billets, each weighing about one hundred pounds.

It took two tons of separated ore and three hundred to three hundred thirty bushels of charcoal to produce one ton of iron.  Most of the product was sold in the form of billets; some was rolled into bars.  Iron produced by this process was remarkably free from impurities.

The product of the blast furnace was “pig iron.”  It was either remelted in foundries and there molded into stove castings, car (train) wheels, car (train) couplers, and the thousand and one cast iron products which were in daily use, or else converted in steel mills into steel plates and bars.  The blast furnace was (and in its present development still is) essentially a steel shell lined with fire brick, standing in a vertical position.  Into it at the top are charged iron ore, limestone, and coke at intervals and in definite proportions.  A stro